Review: Penny Plain (Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes | Factory Theatre)

Ronny Burkett’s Penny Plain at Factory Theatre in Toronto is far more than a playful puppet show

These days we have a tendency to think of shows involving puppets as light fun fare meant for children. Let me assure you, this is not the case with Ronny Burkett’s Penny Plain, currently playing at Factory Theatre.

The show is funny, but it’s also heartbreaking and dark, and it is most definitely not for children.  In fact, the Factory Theatre website notes that children under 14 will not be admitted into the show, and with good reason. In parts it’s downright scary, not to mention more than a little creepy.

It’s also wonderful.

There’s no question that it’s a sight to behold. Ronnie Burkett is without a doubt a virtuoso puppeteer and puppet builder. I have never seen inanimate objects infused with as much life as Burkett’s marionettes. I remember that clearly from the last production of his work I saw at Factory Theatre – Billy Twinkle Requiem for a Golden Boy.

I was enthralled with the mastery of the puppets in Billy Twinkle, and would happily have gone to pretty much anything with that amazing level of beauty and talent. Penny Plain provided me with so much more though. I found the story far more engaging. A story I’d be interested in, even without the puppets.

The piece is set in a rooming house that sits in a world that is crumbling and dying, faced with disease pandemics and environmental disasters. Although we never see the tattered world outside, we hear news reports and I had no problem visualizing it. Also, it was fun recognizing voices from the media in the news items.

Despite the bleak setting, the show is full of laugh-out-loud moments. I even felt like there was a tiny bit of hope at the end.

I’ve spoken at length about Burkett’s skills in the creation and manipulation of the puppets, but I should notice that he’s also a fantastic performer. One man, on the stage for 110 minutes (no intermission), mostly in shadow, brought something in the range of 14 distinct characters to life. He changed his voice, his intonation, and, if you happen to be watching him you’ll notice his body changes too. He inhabits these characters.

When I asked Sam, my show partner for the night, what she thought, she enthusiastically replied “I loved it. I was enthralled by the puppets and the story. It was wonderful!” She told me that the puppets reminded her of the work of Saskatchewan sculptor Joe Fafard (for instance, his piece “Mon Pere”) and that “they all had personalities. Once you met one, even when they were still, just hanging there, they had personalities.”

We were both initially disconcerted a bit at the beginning that the mouths didn’t move, but neither of us are sure why. In retrospect it seems kind of silly, because they really didn’t need to move. We also very quickly got over that feeling and were enraptured by the characters.

I also have to give a nod to the set design (also by Burkett). The miniature world was perfect. The levels seemed perfectly in scale and worked so well with the puppets. Plus, there was a stunning glass tree-like window piece on stage that was breath-taking and used so effectively. I would love to have something like that in my home.

Even if a dystopic story isn’t your thing, then I urge you to go for the technical beauty of the piece, and the Burkett’s amazing life-giving skills with puppets. But leave the kids at home for this one.

Penny Plain plays until February 26, 2011 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathrust St)
– Shows run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm
– Ticket prices range from $38 to $55, with PWYC performances on Sunday
– Tickets are available online or through the box office at 416-504-9971